Tree at the Young Vic: a self-aware but superficial exploration of African heritage

In this Idris Elba-inspired play, the dialogue is sparse, the characters are sketchy, and the celebratory ending feels unearned and trite.

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The evening started well. For Tree, the “immersive theatre experience” crafted out of Idris Elba’s 2014 concept album Mi Mandela, the Young Vic auditorium has been reset to a pit with a raised stage. It looks more like a gig venue than a theatre, and by the time I took my place on the standing terraces, dozens of people – mostly young, mostly black – were already on stage, dancing. Under the artistic directorship of Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Young Vic crackles with the feeling that something is changing. The theatre’s intended audience is London as it is now, not the older, white, richer strata of the capital implicitly addressed by most buildings. Up on stage, there was Kwei-Armah himself, in a cream robe and beads, welcoming favoured guests and getting down. 

I was surprised to see him looking so happy. The day that Tree opened at the Manchester International Festival, from where it has transferred to London, two young writers published a Medium post alleging that they had been kicked off the project after four years of “multiple drafts, workshops, re-drafts and industry performances”. Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin said they had not even been told that the project was going ahead with a new script, written by Kwei-Armah. The post was detailed enough to prompt several high-profile writers to tweet their support. Within hours Kwei-Armah replied to say he had been “falsely accused”. It was clear when he joined the project that the two women’s version of Tree was not one he could programme, he said: “I know my heart and I know my actions.” It was unfair of them to mention the mental health strain of their legal action: he was suffering too, having written Tree by his father’s deathbed. He invited the women to a public discussion “at a venue of their choice”.

I doubt that discussion will ever happen – which emerging writers would want to publicly confront someone with as much the patronage and power as an artistic director? – so the full story may never be known. But one of the women’s criticisms of the final Tree script is worth noting: “In our opinion, our story of hope and celebration had become more of a black trauma narrative.” 

The version staged at the Young Vic follows Kaelo (Alfred Enoch), a mixed-race Londoner whose white South African mother has just died, prompting him to visit his grandmother’s farm, in the hope of finding the grave of his black father. Once there, he learns the story of his grandfather’s apartheid-era crimes and the family betrayal which led to his father’s death. He also meets his half-sister Ofentse (Joan Iyiola), a “suburban property developer” who thinks Nelson Mandela was a beta male who let the Afrikaaners off too easily. She attempts to seize Kaelo’s grandmother’s farm, but when he shows her their father’s grave, they hug it out under the Tree of the title instead.

The script flirts with self-awareness about the potential pitfalls of Britons writing about Africa, as the farm’s gardener jokes that all anyone talks about is race, and Ofentse dismisses her half-brother as a rich, clueless westerner. But addressing the violent, complicated politics of another country through joyous songs and movement inevitably feels superficial. The dialogue is sparse, the characters are sketchy, and therefore the celebratory ending feels unearned and trite. At one point, signs are handed out among the audience, referring to massacres at Sharpville and elsewhere, but there is no further explanation of the historical grievances which the post-Mandela generation might feel are not yet avenged. The performances are mostly strong, although Sinéad Cusack, as grandmother Elzebe, has an accent that racks up more air miles than Prince Andrew. She once veered through Brummie on her way to Australian, barking “yah!” occasionally to get her back on track.

The material clearly has personal relevance for Elba, whose father’s death prompted the album, and Kwei-Armah, who changed his name from Ian Roberts as a teenager when he researched his family’s history. But Winston Elba was from Sierra Leone, whose capital Freetown is 3,659 miles from Johannesburg, and Kwei-Armah’s parents were born in the Caribbean. 

London theatre is intensely concerned with who can tell whose story: an advocacy group for British Asian actors has just written to Hampstead Theatre’s Roxana Silbert to protest the casting of an Asian-American, rather than British Asian, actor in an upcoming play set in China. In this climate, I find the unremarked pan-Africanism of Elba and Kwei-Armah’s vision intriguing.

Not that the audience shared my doubts: as I left, the stage was again full of dancing audience members, including the artistic director. 

 Helen Lewis is a staff writer on the Atlantic 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy